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A Conversation with Writer/Composer: Rupert Holmes

Ted Sod, Education Dramaturg, interviewed Rupert Holmes to talk to him about his work on The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

TS: Where are you from?

RH: Well, that’s a bit tricky. Most of my youth was spent in and about the endearing Hudson River village of Nyack, New York, where I went to school and dreamed all my earliest dreams. I consider it to be my home town. But I was born in the county of Cheshire, England, the son of an American military band leader stationed overseas and the lovely and literate English girl he married, and so my memories during my first four years are of the hauntingly smoky factory town of Northwich about twenty-five miles outside of Manchester, fish markets in the street and purring green double-decker buses. The influence of my British mother, grandmother and my English family has never left me. However, I am very much an American, both by persuasion and passport, and have always lived no more than an hour from midtown Manhattan.

TS: Where were you educated?

RH: First in the Nyack Public School system, where I played the sax and sang in my band The Nomads, for whom I started writing songs because we didn’t know enough chords to play other people’s songs. It was also where my first play premiered, a one-act entitled Countdown for George, performed by my fellow seniors…a life-changing experience.

After high school, I went to Crouse College of Music at Syracuse University for my freshman year, then transferred to the Manhattan School of Music, where I also changed my major from clarinet to music theory. At both schools, I found myself just as interested in studying drama as composition. While still at MSM, I started arranging pop recording sessions for groups like the Drifters and the Platters, and from then on my education came largely from on-the-job training. Sometimes I even got paid.

TS: When did you decide to write music and lyrics?                                   

RH: By the time I was fifteen, I longed to be both a composer and a writer, preferably in some populist form. It eventually dawned on me that writing story songs might be an achievable first step. My lyrics could serve as narrative or character study, while my music and arrangements could carry or underscore my story. It wasn’t theatre, but each song could at least feel to me like a short musical scene or monologue.

TS: How did you get involved with creating work for the theatre?

RH: By 1983, I’d had almost a decade of decent success as a songwriter. My words and music had been recorded by many of the top vocalists of the time. I’d written, arranged, and conducted platinum albums for Barbra Streisand, contributed to the score of the movie A Star is Born, I’d even had a couple of hit records of my own. But I still yearned to write for theatre, not just musicals but comedies and stage thrillers as well. I hoped that someone would notice that I’d been writing mini-musicals on my own record albums in a range of musical styles with self-penned orchestrations. In 1983, I was performing at Rodney Dangerfield’s club in Manhattan (back when Rodney still performed there) and got a nice review from Stephen Holden in the New York Times. Gail Merrifield, who was the director of play development for the New York Shakespeare Festival and the wife of its illustrious founder Joe Papp, came to see me perform. After the show, she sent me a card saying, “Have you ever thought about writing a musical? If so, we should talk.” It had taken me years, but finally a window into theatre had opened for me, one as impressive and illuminating as staiNed Glass. I met with Gail shortly thereafter and told her of an idea I’d been mulling over since the early seventies, of a musical based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens. Gail was intrigued, and with her encouragement and that of Joe Papp, I devoted the next two years of my life to writing and composing The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

TS: What inspired you to write a musical version of The Mystery of Edwin Drood?

RH: I think I most fully answered this question in an essay I wrote for Canada’s Shaw Festival. However, the much shorter answer is that I had been fascinated since boyhood by Charles Dickens’ maddeningly uncompleted work and had always felt it might adapt well for the stage, particularly because of the musical elements of the story: its protagonist John Jasper is an emotionally-disturbed choirmaster and organist, madly in love with his vocal student Rosa Bud, and during his flights of opium-induced fantasy, he hears the music of the spheres. When I pondered how I would have the audacity to write an ending for the piece, I suddenly realized it would be mega-and-meta-theatrical to have the live audience help determine the outcome of the evening’s performance. And by framing the tale as if it were being performed by a London music hall company in 1895, who have concocted their own script and score to best suit their regular troupe of entertainers, it would free the show from having to be an authentic representation of Edwin Drood (a very somber work to be sure) and allow it to be as high-spirited and comical as the Music Hall Royale performers themselves.

TS: What do you feel the musical is about?

RH: Like its protagonist John Jasper, my Edwin Drood has dual personalities: that of London’s boisterous Music Hall Royale in 1895 and that of the gothic mystery Mr. Dickens wrote some twenty-five years earlier. For me, each of those worlds has its own inherent theme. For the Music Hall Royale, as well as for me, it is about the privilege of putting on a show, about the communion between actors and audiences, and the gratitude most performers feel to be gainfully employed in their most extraordinary of professions. Most opening numbers are about “here we are” or “look at us” or “we’re going to give you a good time.” Edwin Drood’s opening number is “There You Are,” which acknowledges the thrill and honor of seeing that someone has actually shown up to hear you sing. “Not a lot we care for where you've been, and not a jot we care how you got in, we but care that there you are!”

Where Mr. Dickens’ sad tale is concerned, at least in the hands of the Music Hall Royale, I think this musical is ultimately about how fragile and precious each moment of life is. We should make no assumptions about what the future may hold or whether we have a place in it. Edwin Drood is an optimistic young man with his entire life before him. He will do fine things and shake the world a bit. One night, he vanishes, and may have met some sinister fate for no reason of his own doing. The lyrics that mean the most to me in this show come in its very last moments: “Is it clear? If you hear my voice, then you’re alive. What a bloody marvel we survive when you think of every risk we face in our mad human race.” Simply surviving and savoring each blessed moment of life is reason enough to go on. This has great personal resonance to me because of a tragic, unexpected loss in my own life less than a year after the show first opened. It was almost as if the lyric of “The Writing on the Wall” was a warning written clairvoyantly by some part of my subconscious that sensed the terrible darkness ahead.

TS: How did you research the world of The Mystery of Edwin Drood?

RH: Keep in mind that there was no Internet at the time. So before and during the writing of this musical, I spent many a long afternoon and evening at the Fifth Avenue Public Library poring over countless old Dickensian biographies, critiques, publications of the period, memoirs of his friends and associates, comparisons of Edwin Drood to The Moonstone. I did this with particular emphasis on any theories or clues regarding the many mysteries in Dickens’ story: Was Edwin Drood dead? If so, who killed him? Who is beneath the obvious disguise of Dick Datchery? What is Puffer’s connection to the world of Cloisterham? Ultimately I agreed with Mark Twain, whose own comment about such theories was that a great number of researchers had already thrown considerable darkness on the subject, and if they continued their work, we would soon know nothing about it at all.

TS: Will you give us some insight into your process? Did you write the libretto first and then the songs? 

RH: No, with few exceptions, I wrote Edwin Drood as one bolt of fabric starting from Act One, Scene One to the final curtain, in order. I would come to the moment in the script where the characters were clearly demanding to sing, and I’d stop to create the music and lyrics they needed. When I was done, I’d continue the script. There were very few exceptions. However, I did know from the outset that I would have Jasper compose a song as a birthday present for Rosa, this insidious gift forcing her to sing the words he’d long fantasized hearing. I moved past that point in the story and simply held a place for it in the script until I felt ready to write it. One day, I came back to my piano after lunch and played the entire piece almost as you hear it today. I called it “Moonfall.” Except for that, though, almost everything in the show was written in the order you hear it. It all seemed very sensible. But writing for theatre for the first time, I felt honor bound to write songs only as their dramatic or comedic need arose, rather than thinking “Today I really ought to write the ballad that will be a hit from the show.” I doubt that I could have worked this way if I’d been collaborating with other writers.

TS: What was the most challenging part of writing Edwin Drood?

RH: Well, writing the book, music, lyrics and orchestrations was both the most challenging and, honestly, the most fun. But creating the orchestrations over the course of two sleep-deprived months was certainly the most grueling part of my assignment, especially since I had to orchestrate every possible ending--meaning that I had to arrange and orchestrate a great deal of music that I knew would not be heard at every performance! Penciling every individual note and dynamic mark turned out to be mentally and physically the hardest single task I’ve ever performed in my career.

TS: Can you describe what you look for in a director?

RH: Scott Ellis is my favorite director to work with, and he has all the traits I would ever look for. I appreciate directors who were at one time gifted performers themselves. Scott, Rob and Kathleen Marshall, Rob Ashford—they bring a wealth of personal insight and empathy to the challenges faced by the cast. I like directors who are funny, because there is comedy in all my work and I don’t see how someone can direct humor if they themselves can’t get a laugh. And finally I want them to have good hearts. Directors who enjoy wielding their power over the cast in a hurtful or demeaning way…well, they’re not for me.

TS: What did you look for in casting this production?

RH: Edwin Drood is very much an ensemble piece, but one where any principal may have to deliver a star turn finale at any given performance. So it requires actors who are gracious enough to create a team spirit, yet who can become The Star at the drop of a hat. We have such a cast for this production, I’m honored to say.

TS: Will there be any changes to the script or score for the Roundabout production?

RH: Well, it’s not as if we’re changing the time or place of the show, making Edwin Drood into a rebel pitted against a drug cartel in post-Apocalyptic Pittsburgh. This new production is particularly intended for a generation that never got to see the show on Broadway, and so there’s a limit to how much we would change. We will be experimenting with restoring two numbers that were cut from the show when it transferred from the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park to Broadway. And we will of course have some new dance music for Warren’s newly-created choreography that I will be orchestrating anew.

TS: Who do you think killed Edwin Drood?

RH: After years of research and much consideration, I strongly believe that had Charles Dickens lived to complete The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Robert Louis Stevenson might not have bothered to writeDoctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde some ten years later. I think what Dickens intended to spotlight was the unusual mental state of the culprit. There was no word “schizophrenia” in 1870, but I think the depiction of a split-personality who might keep his criminality secret from even himself was where Dickens was going with his story. I refer, of course, to the character of John Jasper. However, that is certainly not always the choice of audiences watching the Music Hall Royale’s more light-hearted rendering of the tale.

TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist?

RH: Honestly, everything in life inspires me, particularly all the people I see on the street, on a train, at airports, in restaurants. I wonder “What’s their story?” and soon I’m inventing one. It was said of Charles Dickens that he would allow no man to be a bore. For me, no moment is a bore. It sounds corny as all hell but I don’t have to go to a concert hall to attend a symphony, as you suggest, because there’s music in every sound I hear, especially in the way people talk to each other. And as for drama, sadly, there’s heartbreak almost everywhere I turn. Tragedy is what life hands us and comedy is what we invented to cope with it. The details of life can be delightfully funny and I feel privileged I get to tune in. So I never lack for sources of inspiration; I only lack for time to write everything I’d like.

TS: What are you working on now?

RH: A new novel for Simon and Schuster, the first of a series. The play A Time to Kill, which I’ve adapted from the novel by John Grisham. A new stage adaptation of the classic courtroom drama Witness for the Prosecution by Agatha Christie. The musicals of The Nutty Professor (for which I wrote book and lyrics with the late and dearly-missed Marvin Hamlisch), Secondhand Lions (score by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner), Sweet Potato Queens (score by Melissa Manchester and Sharon Vaughn), My Man Godfrey (score by Mark Hollman), a new Australian production of First Wives Club (score with Motown greats Holland-Dozier-Holland), and my own solely-written musical of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

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